Burma, The Catholic Church in
BURMA, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Also known as Myanmar, Burma is located in southeast Asia. Bordered on the west by the Bay of Bengal, India, and Bangladesh, it is bordered on the east by Thailand, Laos, and China, and on the south by the Andaman Sea. A tropical climate and large lowland region characterize this relatively poor country with its economic base consisting of agriculture, heavy industry, and energy production. Burma is also the second largest producer of illegal opium. After the imposition of martial law in 1988, Burma was renamed Myanmar by the country's new military regime; it is still known by both names. Between 1961 and 1988 buddhism was the state religion.
Church Hierarchy Develops. The Burmese people are primarily of Tibetan descent, although Hindus emigrating from India settled along its southern coast. Inhabited as early as the 3rd century, it was united under one ruler 800 years later. Mogul invaders obtained power over the region from the 13th century, and several regional governments were established. The first Burmese dynasty was formed in the 16th century out of the kingdoms of Toungoo, Ava, and Pegu, and was supported through an alliance with Portuguese traders. Later conflicts with the English East India Company resulted in British occupation from 1824–85, and the region was administered as part of British India until 1937. Separated from India and made a Crown Colony in 1937, the Union of Burma gained its independence as a republic in 1948, following World War II. The country's civilian government was overthrown in a military coup in 1962, initiating a period of political instability, repression, and military rule that continued into the 21st century.
Christianity was introduced into Burma c. 1500 by Portuguese merchants who visited the ports and established themselves in the commercial centers. Portuguese priests (seculars, Franciscans, and Jesuits) ministered to them. The first to evangelize the Burmese was a French Franciscan, whose efforts (1554–57) were unsuccessful. In 1666 Burma had one priest, who resided in the city of Ava with 70 Catholics and who visited twice yearly 970 other Catholics dwelling in 11 localities. When the Vicariate Apostolic of Siam, Ava, and Pegu was created (1669), Bishop Laneau of the paris foreign mission so ciety (mep) became the Vicar Apostolic, but he lacked the personnel to staff the mission. The two missionaries whom he sent to Pegu in 1687 were murdered in 1693. Evangelization of the pagans was not undertaken again until 1721, when Carlo mezzabarba, the papal legate, took the initiative and sent to Ava and Pegu two Italian priests, one a Barnabite, the other a secular. In 1722 the Vicariate of Ava and Pegu was formed and confided to Italian Barnabites. They enjoyed some success in the cities of Ava, Pegu, Syriam, and Toungoo, despite the massacre of Bishop Gallizia and two priests in 1745. Paulo Nerini continued the work alone until he shared their fate (1756). New missionaries arrived in 1760, but all of them soon died except Father Percotto, an outstanding vicar apostolic (1768–76). By 1790 Rangoon had 3,000 Catholics, two parishes, and several schools. The Barnabite missionaries were withdrawn, however, as a result of the invasion of Italy by the armies of the French Revolution. The Congregation for the propagation of the faith sent other priests without delay, but a series of three wars between England and Burma ruined the mission. Oblates of Mary the Virgin came in 1842 from Turin, but in 1855 they were replaced by the MEP, to whom the mission was entrusted.
When conflict between Burma and Great Britain subsided after 1886, Bishop Paul Bigandet, vicar apostolic (1856–93), began what became the first successful effort to organize the Church in Burma. Occupied by Japanese forces during World War II, the country returned to Allied control and ultimately won independence on Oct. 17, 1947. Despite the instability of the civilian government in power following independence, the Church hierarchy was established in 1955 when Mandalay and Rangoon became archdioceses and metropolitan sees for the two ecclesiastical provinces. By the mid-20th century Burma had 187 secular and 65 religious priests, 39 seminarians, 100 brothers, 688 sisters, and 75,000 students in 367 Catholic schools.
The Church in a Secular State. After numerous attempts to unseat Burma's civilian government, military leader Ne Win took power in 1962. Establishing one-party socialist state, Ne Win was an authoritarian leader who promoted neutrality and separatism. In 1966 foreign missionaries were forced to leave Burma when work permits issued after 1948 were refused renewal by the government. Ne Win remained in power until July 1988, when a series of student and worker protests forced him to resign. The military, led by General Saw Maung, seized power in September 1988. Burma was renamed Myanmar, and martial law was imposed. Despite political inroads by the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi, military rule continued into the 21st century. A worsening economy and the rapid growth in illegal drug trafficking and attendant crime continued to plague the Burmese. Ethnic violence promoted by the Burmese military drew the attention of human rights organizations, as well as the Vatican, after governmentdictated relocations of Karen villagers resulted in violence and forced labor. Also, in August 1999 members of a Baptist Church in northern Nagaland were reportedly coerced into renouncing their Christian faith, again drawing concern. As early as 1996 Pope John Paul II had encouraged Burmese bishops to engage in outreach with Buddhist leaders as a means of countering such ethnic and religious oppression.
By 2000, there were 263 active parishes in Burma, administered to by 446 secular and 30 religious priests. Over 1,100 sisters and 75 brothers also were at work in the country, with their duties primarily confined to social and pastoral activities.
Bibliography: l. gallo, Storia del cristianesimo nell 'Impero birmano 2 v. (Milan 1862). p. bigandet, An Outline of the History of the Catholic Burmese Mission, 1720–1887 (Rangoon 1887). h. hosten and e. luce, Bibliotheca catholica birmana (Rangoon 1915). e. papinot, "L'apostolat des Barnabites en Birmanie (1722–1829)," Revue d'histoire des missions 11 (1934) 270–86. v. ba, "The Early Catholic Missionaries in Burma," Guardian (Rangoon; August 1962–May 1964).